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How travel can help with bereavement


When you lose someone you love, your world falls apart. Picturing yourself back on an even kilter one day seems impossible. More than impossible; a betrayal of the life you once shared together.

Image by Alex Berger on flickr

At first glance, travel can seem like the least appropriate thing to do at such a devastating time. The guilt you might feel at having fun after losing someone can make you shy away from doing anything that could make you smile. But an important part of the grieving process is telling yourself that you want to be ok, and giving yourself the time and space you need to grieve so you can start to move forward.
For some, staying in a familiar routine and having friends and family close at hand is a source of comfort. But for others, doing things and going to places alone that you used to do together, from waking up beside an unused pillow to walking past a favourite viewpoint every day, becomes a cycle of sadness that’s difficult to break.

“Travel can help remove that barrier to the grieving process.”

It’s a physical manifestation of the inner journey you need to go on to break that negative cycle. It’s not about forgetting the person you’ve lost; it’s about allowing yourself to remember the good times and celebrate their life. For Thelma & Louise Club member and full-time traveller Bernadette, travel is a way of honouring the memory of four of her close friends who died before they could carry out their life plans: “I carry their spirits with me every day and hope they are cheering me on.”

“Grief is an isolating experience. It's lonely and quiet and it's easy to sink into,” says Claire Bidwell Smith, grief therapist and author of The Rules of Inheritance, which tells the story of her powerful journey of discovery after losing both her parents by the time she turned 25. “Reminding yourself that there is a whole world out there still turning on its axis can be vital.”
Finding solace in the unfamiliar
Travel surrounds you with unfamiliar places, experiences and people. The most complicated thing to do each day could be simply deciding what to do, giving you the time and space you need to openly grieve.
When Kelly McVay embarked on a month-long trip shortly after losing someone dear to her she found herself crying her eyes out in public, which turned out to be a cathartic experience: “I didn’t allow myself to think, which was easier on the road. And when I did think, I didn’t care where I cried. At the beginning of the trip it happened often. I remember walking through the Plaka in Athens bawling. I would never let myself do that in New York.”
Travel is also exhausting, in a good way. Chances are you’ll fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow every night. And surrounding yourself with strangers, rather than well-meaning friends and family, can be surprisingly liberating when it comes to talking through complicated feelings – or not talking them through, if that’s what you choose.

One word of warning when you’re planning a trip after a bereavement. If you’ve lost your partner in life, be wary of booking a group tour where you might be the only person travelling alone. This woman has some great advice after joining a small organised group tour following the loss of her husband at the age of 52:

“Alas, it was the worst thing I could possibly do. I was the only person on the trip who was on their own and it compounded the feeling that I had lost my husband, my best travelling companion, forever. I had never felt more alone. So this year I went with two longtime friends and it was great.” – Cupt16, on Lonely Planet’s chat forum.

The destination is important

Travel after bereavement isn’t just about who you go with. It’s worth thinking carefully about where you go too.

“The right trip, as well as the right travel companions, can act as an antidote to negative thought cycles.”

“A couple of months after my father died when I was twenty-five, I found myself on a tiny island in the Philippines, traveling alone in a place more foreign than any I'd ever been,” says Claire Bidwell Smith. “By myself in a quiet mangrove forest one afternoon I actually felt less alone than I ever had, simply because, standing there with my toes sinking into the mud, I knew that I was irrevocably connected to the world.”
I’ve always found clear night skies hugely comforting – the thought that no matter how far away the people I love are, they still see these same moon and stars. And the vastness of those starry skyscapes makes me feel reassuringly small, a teeny part of a huge machine that endures even when my world has stopped. Similarly, ancient and historic spots could help you appreciate the transience of life; drinking in a beautiful panorama could help you feel re-connected to this earth; and learning a new skill such as speaking Chinese or scuba diving could help focus you on the future.
Sit with your grief
This isn’t about setting down your grief and moving on without it. It’s about allowing yourself the time and space to just be with your loss, getting used to that feeling until you find a bearable way to carry it forward with you in life.

“Travelling after bereavement is gifting yourself the opportunity to find your way back to you.”

Life may always be marked out for you as Before and After your devastating loss; it – you – will be changed, and that’s ok. When you’re ready for it, time spent travelling can allow you to pinpoint what’s important to you in your new life landscape, reset your priorities and come back better equipped to deal with day-to-day life.
Have you travelled after bereavement? Did it help, or was it a mistake?